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Choiceology: Season 6 Episode 5

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Have you ever ignored unpleasant information, hoping it would just go away?

For some people, the check engine light on their car dashboard means an immediate trip to the repair shop. But for others, it represents a nagging unpleasant feeling that’s best to be avoided. So they put it out of their mind for as long as they can.

In this episode of Choiceology with Katy Milkman, we examine the tendency to avoid or ignore certain information when it may be uncomfortable or inconvenient.

Amelia Boone is a high achiever. Within a short time of taking up the grueling sport of obstacle course racing, she was winning world championships. At the top of her game, she went looking for other challenges, and eventually took up ultra-running—where athletes compete in races longer than marathons, sometimes as long as 100 miles! Again, Amelia quickly rose to the upper echelons of this elite club of athletes.

But then the injuries began. You’ll hear about Amelia’s attitude of pushing through the pain and training harder—an attitude that nearly destroyed her athletic career. When her injuries finally sidelined her from racing, Amelia realized that she’d been ignoring a crucial aspect of her health.

Amelia Boone is an obstacle racer, ultra-runner, and attorney living in Colorado.

Next, Emily Ho joins Katy to talk about the science behind this tendency to avoid certain types of information. She explains how the phenomenon impacts investors, medical patients, and employees, and she illustrates the perils of ignoring uncomfortable facts.

Emily Ho is a research assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Department of Medical Social Sciences. You can read more about information avoidance in the research paper she co-authored with George Loewenstein and David Hagmann.

Choiceology is an original podcast from Charles Schwab.

If you enjoy the show, please leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts.

Click to show the transcript

SAM: Hey, neighbor.

SPEAKER 2: Oh, hey, Sam.

SAM: I noticed on my ride—I was up the hill behind your place—that your rain gutters are pretty clogged up. You might want to have those looked at.

SPEAKER 2: Thanks. We’ve never really had a problem with them. And I don’t know, I’m not really sure I want to get up on the roof. But I appreciate it.

SAM: Suit yourself. Just thought you might want to know. OK. Have a good one.

SPEAKER 2: OK. See you.

SAM: Hi again.

SPEAKER 2: Hey, Sam.

SAM: I tried to get a better look from up at the hill this morning. Those gutters of yours are looking really clogged with leaves. I know a guy who will clear them all out for a couple of hundred bucks. Do you want his number?

SPEAKER 2: Money’s a bit tight right now, and in all the years we’ve been here, we’ve never had a problem with the rain gutters. So yeah, I’ll pass, but thanks again. I appreciate it.

SAM: OK. I’ll quit bugging you.

SPEAKER 2: Hey, honey, there’s water coming in through the ceiling. I don’t know. Call the repair company, quick.

SPEAKER 3: So let’s see. With the new drywall, carpet, and trim, and the painting, that’ll come to $10,500 plus tax.

KATY MILKMAN: Have you ever faced a situation like this where there’s something unpleasant you should probably deal with, but you just park it in the back of your mind, hoping the problem will go away? Today on the show, we look at research on this very human tendency to ignore some information. We’ll also talk about why you might ignore that information, even if it could be valuable to know for your finances …

SPEAKER 2: I really don’t want to look at my credit card statement.

KATY MILKMAN: … your home …

SPEAKER 2: There’s water coming in through the ceiling.

KATY MILKMAN: … or your health.

AMELIA BOONE: Every single step was searing sharp pain.

KATY MILKMAN: I’m Dr. Katy Milkman, and this is Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It’s a show about the psychology and economics behind our decisions. We bring you true stories involving high-stakes, make-or-break moments. And we explore the latest research in behavioral science to help you make better choices and avoid costly mistakes.

AMELIA BOONE: I went out on a run. I remember it was April 23rd, 2016, and did a lot of elevation gain. And I remember just feeling like my right leg was breaking in half, but I thought, “No, it’s just a tight muscle.”

KATY MILKMAN: This is Amelia. She’s no stranger to pain.

AMELIA BOONE: My name is Amelia Boone and I am an obstacle racing world champion and ultra-runner and an attorney.

KATY MILKMAN: She’s a four-time world champion in obstacle racing, a sport that demands serious physical and mental grit.

AMELIA BOONE: It’s kind of this perfect sport where you are crawling under things, you’re hopping over walls, you’re running through mud, you’re swimming, you’re carrying heavy objects, and then you have to run really fast in between the obstacles. And so it’s this sport that’s this perfect combination of skill and strength and endurance.

KATY MILKMAN: Amelia started obstacle racing when the sport was still pretty new. 2010 marked the year that several popular obstacle races began, including the Spartan Race and Tough Mudder. She lived in Chicago at the time and signed up with some work colleagues for her first obstacle race. From that first competition, she was hooked.

AMELIA BOONE: I ran one Tough Mudder in 2011, and then I decided that I clearly should run the 24-hour World’s Toughest Mudder, never having run for 24 hours before in my life. I remember it was about 4:00 in the morning, and this race was in New Jersey in December, and it was about 15 degrees outside, and we were wading through water obstacles, just breaking the ice trying to go through it because it was so cold. And I remember picking up this sheet of ice and being like, “This is the stupidest thing that I’ve ever done,” but I loved it. And I think that was the moment where I knew that I’d found something that was so special to me and unlike anything other.

KATY MILKMAN: Within just a few years, Amelia stood on podiums more than 50 times and became one of the most decorated obstacle racers in the short history of the sport.

AMELIA BOONE: Within a year, I was winning every single race and I didn’t expect that. And I didn’t really know what I was doing. And nobody really knew what they were doing in terms of training for this style of race. But it was fun to kind of figure out.

KATY MILKMAN: Chicago is pretty flat. So Amelia improvised to get the hill and mountain training she needed. Overpasses and parking garages became her friends for hill training, and it was working.

AMELIA BOONE: But I think that as I started winning more races, it started to go from being fun to feeling like I was under a lot of pressure and feeling like I had to perform. People like to talk about the rise to the top. You work your way up. I started at the top, and I was fortunate with that. And then I was so scared of what happened when I wasn’t at the top anymore.

KATY MILKMAN: With those wins under her belt, and increasing pressure to stay number one, it was time for a new challenge. And that came in the form of ultra-running—races longer than the marathon distance of 26.2 miles. She moved to California and drastically upped her mileage from 40 to 100 miles per week.

AMELIA BOONE: All of a sudden, I had all these trails around me, and all I wanted to do was run. And I had zero idea about slowly upping your mileage. I wasn’t working with a coach at the time. So I decided, well, I’ve run for 24 hours before in an obstacle race—I can clearly run 80-, 90-, 100-mile weeks. As I was running more and more, I started to have this, what I thought was a chronic adductor strain on my right leg. But I thought it was normal. You run that much, you have aches and pains. I’ll take a few days off. I’ll take a rest period, and it will be fine, and it will go away. And I had spent close to five or six years at the top of obstacle racing and really pushing through things all the time. I never suffered any significant injuries. And so for me, it was just like, “OK, well things hurt, but they’ll resolve themselves. It’s just my body getting adjusted.” And at one point I ran a 50K, and I remember covering my entire right leg with a RockTape just to try and get through it. But the more and more I kept running, the more and more I had to kind of figure out ways to make it not hurt.

KATY MILKMAN: It’s not uncommon for elite athletes to push through pain, but over time, that can become a problem.

AMELIA BOONE: And pain is actually glorified. We say, “Push through the pain,” and “You can never quit,” and things like that. And unfortunately that mentality then can really sink you into a very, very dark place. And for so many years, I just told myself mind over matter, mind over matter. I can push myself through this, and I can push myself through pain, and I can deal with this all. And it’s very hard for high-performance athletes sometimes to take a step back and to take the foot off the gas and to say, “OK, maybe less is more in these scenarios.” And maybe there’s more going on than just the performance aspect to it.

KATY MILKMAN: Amelia noticed something was amiss, but she pushed on and continued training.

AMELIA BOONE: The warning signs were really just that pain that was not getting better and feeling constantly beat up after runs. Runners are very in tune with their body, and just knowing something was not feeling right and that it wasn’t getting better, with all of the different things that I tried to throw at it. I’d go and see the chiropractor. I would sit in the compression boots. I would do ice baths, but the pain was still there. And I didn’t really, at the time, want to think about what could be the cause? Even though I knew in the back of my mind, I did have some risk factors that would indicate that I could break bones. But I think at that time in my life, it was just very easy to write off as just an over-training mistake.

KATY MILKMAN: That voice, the one in the back of her head saying, “Hey, you should check in with yourself.” It’s important to remember. We’ll come back to it. Right now, we’ll focus on the high-elevation run that changed the course of her racing career.

AMELIA BOONE: I went out on a run. I remember it was April 23rd, 2016, and did a lot of elevation gain. And I remember going down one descent and just feeling like my right leg was breaking in half. And clearly at this point, I probably should have pulled the plug and walked it back in. I thought, “No, it’s just a tight muscle. And if I turn around and run uphill, it feels fine. So we’ll just keep running uphill.” But then running downhill, I remember vividly, just every single step was searing sharp pain. I finally called it quits and walked it back in.

KATY MILKMAN: An MRI confirmed that the pain she felt was a stress fracture in her right leg.

AMELIA BOONE: I didn’t even know you could have a stress fracture in your femur. Everybody talks about how it’s the strongest bone in your body. That was a new thing to me. It was a wake-up call and I was very, very angry at that time.

KATY MILKMAN: After being on crutches for months, and after her femur healed, she sustained another stress fracture while training. This time it was her sacrum, the bone at the base of your spine that connects to your pelvis. The injury sidelined Amelia for five months.

AMELIA BOONE: I spent from 2016 to 2019 running for a few months, racing for a few months, but then being struck down with another injury. And I was just so tired of the cycle. I finally needed to look at myself and say, “There is something wrong.” And I think the hardest part is I kind of knew that internally all along, but I was so ashamed to actually admit that I could be in my early mid-30s and still struggling with this.

KATY MILKMAN: Amelia had been ignoring something she needed to confront. Something she knew could explain the frequent breaks in her bones.

AMELIA BOONE: I had been diagnosed with anorexia when I was 16 years old, and I was hospitalized for six weeks. I needed to be medically stabilized. I spent the next probably 10 years of my life in various forms of recovery. And I went to residential treatment, and I graduated college, went to law school, and I thought I was in a good part of recovery at that point. I thought I was very solid. So I didn’t talk about it anymore, and I thought that it was behind me. And I told myself because I’m at a quote-unquote “healthy weight,” and because it’s not really prevalent in my mind, that it’s very, very far behind me.

What the femur stress fracture and then the sacral stress fracture made me realize is that the body doesn’t forget that easily. And actually, as for all the years that I was at the top of the sport in obstacle racing, I was still engaging in disordered eating patterns. It was just easy to ignore those issues because I was doing so well. I told myself if I am performing at this level, I clearly cannot have an eating issue, because I wouldn’t be winning world championships if I was starving myself.

KATY MILKMAN: By 2019, Amelia had sustained four fractures in total. So in April of last year, she stepped back from work and racing to seek treatment, only telling her family and a few close friends.

AMELIA BOONE: So it needed to get to a point where I could swallow the potential bitter pill that by going into treatment, I may never compete again. Or I may never compete at the same level, or I would need to take a step back and not compete for several years to get my body healthy. But I needed to be willing to take that risk that I could survive without the racing and still be the same human being.

KATY MILKMAN: She found a treatment center in Seattle that works with athletes.

AMELIA BOONE: And they said, “We recommend that you come in and do our full-day programs 8:00 to 6:00 p.m. every day.” And I thought, “No, no, no, no, no. I do not need that level of care. Can I just start lower?” But then also knowing that I had spent so many years trying to make changes on my own, and it wasn’t working. So I might as well jump in with the most support possible. But even then it wasn’t easy. I actually pushed my admit date out twice. I found every reason that it wouldn’t work. I was really hoping in the back of my mind that my employer wouldn’t let me take the time off. So I definitely still even sabotaged myself in the process to get there.

The treatment is interesting because you step out of your life, and you spend 10 hours a day focusing on your feelings and focusing on everything that led you to this point, and I think the biggest thing for me was realizing that I could strip away the coping mechanisms and learning how to deal without those. So the eating disorder had numbed out a lot of feelings that I didn’t want to deal with. So in treatment, we worked a lot on those underlying issues and also learning how to move and be an athlete in a healthy and nourishing manner for myself.

KATY MILKMAN: Amelia was discharged about a year ago and has returned to racing, but with a different outlook.

AMELIA BOONE: So if there’s one thing that I’ve learned about recovery is that it’s definitely not a linear process. I will not say that I am recovered with an -ed at the end, but I am firmly in recovery. For me, my focus now is really on community. So I made a move to Colorado where I’m surrounded by a lot more friends. And I realize I race now because I love to be out there, but I race for the social aspect. I race because I like to challenge myself, and those shared experiences are there regardless of whether you’re crossing the finish line first or you’re crossing the finish line last. In 2016, if you’d asked me what my greatest fear would be, it would be, “Oh, not racing and not winning and people not liking me.” And it’s funny, I’ve been competing since treatment. I took some time off, but I’ve done some races, and have I performed that well? Not really, to be totally honest. Back in 2016, that would have been my worst nightmare. And now I’m just like, “I am apparently living my worst nightmare, but I’m so much happier now.” Because I understood what is actually important.

KATY MILKMAN: Amelia Boone is an obstacle racer, ultra-runner, and attorney living in Colorado. You can find links to her website in the show notes or at schwab.com/podcast.

For several years of her racing career, Amelia avoided addressing signs that her battle with anorexia was not over, even though she knew in the back of her mind that facing this health challenge and seeking treatment would be better for both her physical and mental health. It was a bitter pill to swallow knowing that she’d have to pause her athletic career and potentially be told she shouldn’t race again.

Avoiding information that you don’t want to hear because you anticipate it will cause psychological discomfort is commonly referred to as the ostrich effect. The ostrich effect can diminish the quality of your decisions and lead to unintended consequences. And it can come up in many contexts. For example, someone avoids seeking out a medical diagnosis and by delaying makes the condition worse. Or a person avoids looking at a bill until the due date has passed, and then they owe late fees too. Or someone ignores that “check engine” light in their car because they fear an expensive repair, but by foregoing simple maintenance, they cause more serious problems.

Today we have access to all sorts of information at our fingertips. With widespread internet access, it’s easy for us to find most of the facts we need to make better decisions. But as my next guest will explain, people often choose to remain ignorant for a variety of reasons. Emily Ho has done important work to advance our understanding of the ostrich effect—that is, deliberate information avoidance—in the context of education, health outcomes, and climate change. I reached Emily at her home in New York.

Emily, thank you so much for joining me on the show today. I really appreciate it.

EMILY HO: No, it’s a pleasure to be on the podcast. I’m a great fan of Choiceology.

KATY MILKMAN: That’s very kind of you to say. We’re honored. I actually wanted to start by asking you a really basic question, which is if you could just explain what the ostrich effect is.

EMILY HO: Yeah. So the ostrich effect, it comes from the old legend of an ostrich burying their head in the sand when they sort of sense danger. So rather than using their legs to run away from the threat, they just stick their head in the sand and go, “Ah, crisis averted.” And so for humans, it’s the phenomenon of avoiding information when people expect the outcome to be bad. Like I think my favorite sports team has just lost the game. I’m not going to tune in to see what the final score was. And things like that.

KATY MILKMAN: That’s a really helpful description. And I was hoping you could also describe some of the classic research showing that people do this beyond, we can all think of examples in our lives, but what is some of the evidence that this is a real issue?

EMILY HO: So I’ll give you two examples of the ostrich effect, one in health and one in finance. So in health, there’s a lot of studies that show that people who are at risk of having certain diseases, from like STDs to Huntington’s Disease, which is a neurodegenerative disease, they’re less likely to get tested. I think in the Huntington’s Disease scenario, only 7% of people who have that gene get tested. So that’s in health, people are just flat-out avoiding the fact that they may be very ill and just sticking their head in the sand and thinking, “Well, if I don’t get tested, then it’s like I don’t have it.” So that’s one example.

KATY MILKMAN: These are people who have really extreme symptoms that would suggest they should be going to the doctor and getting tests done. But they’re avoiding that is what you’re saying.

EMILY HO: Exactly. There’s a study by Emily Oster, who’s a health economist at Brown. And she finds that even people who most likely have it, based on the symptoms, they perceive that they don’t have it or that the chances of them having it is pretty low, even though by all the medical indications, they almost certainly have it. So that’s one example.

There’s a lot of work in the field of behavioral finance, where they basically show that when the stock market is down, investors avoid looking at their financial portfolios, but then when the stock market is up or the S&P 500® goes up, people log into their accounts a lot more. What’s really cool about this finding is that they find that this behavior persists even over the weekend. So literally, the markets aren’t trading, and when the S&P closes on Friday afternoon, and it’s down, investors don’t log in over the weekend. But when the stock markets end on a high note, people are logging in just to enjoy their earnings, even though you really can’t do anything about it. So that’s an example in behavioral finance of the ostrich effect.

KATY MILKMAN: That’s so fascinating. I love the image of investors hiding from their portfolios on the weekends when the stock market is down and scrambling to see those green numbers when the market is up. I know you’ve also done some really interesting research on information avoidance more generally. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about some of your favorite work you’ve done on this topic.

EMILY HO: Yeah. So one of the studies that I’ve recently ran was basically to find out how information avoidance, how common it was, and kind of how stable a personality trait it was. So a question that we wondered was if people who are ostriches in all areas of their life, or is it just in some areas? And so to do this, we tested over 2,300 people across three studies, and we basically find that most people avoid information to some degree. So information avoidance is pretty pervasive, but what was really interesting was that we found that how people avoided information was very context dependent. So for example, those who wanted to know everything about their health might be the very same people who didn’t want to know information about their personal finances or how their retirement portfolio is doing relative to their peers.

KATY MILKMAN: That’s so interesting. What is it that drives us to avoid information in some contexts and to seek it in others?

EMILY HO: So that’s a really interesting question for which there’s many possible answers, and some things we just don’t know for sure. So one driving mechanism is how that information makes you feel, basically what I’ll call the hedonic value of getting information. So in the example of the investors logging in when their portfolio is in the green, it’s how good you think you’ll feel by obtaining the information, and you know that when the stock markets close on a high, you feel good every time you log in. And so that’s why you do it. And conversely, if you feel bad for not making very wise choices, you might want to just avoid that feeling and thus avoid the information. So that’s one reason. Another reason is this idea of perceived actionability. What can I do with this information?

KATY MILKMAN: Let me just dig in for a second. Because you said … you noted that different people are information avoidant in different contexts. And if it’s just about how good it feels, then everybody would avoid logging in to see their stock market portfolio when the returns are negative, and everyone would go log in when the returns are positive. That doesn’t feel like it would produce differences in the behaviors of some people versus others. So I’m curious about why it is that there are sometimes … it’s attractive to some people and not attractive to others to avoid information.

EMILY HO: I’ll focus on maybe two reasons that it might be that way. One is that some people are just more … maybe sensitive—or less sensitive in certain areas of your life. For example, if I got a raise last year and my bank account’s doing pretty well, I might be a lot more inclined to check my bank account, versus if I suspect that I’m unhealthy. So I can sort of be fiscally healthy, but not physically healthy. So if I’m more sensitive about my weight or my diet or my … maybe I haven’t gone to the gym, I might avoid that information more. So it’s very context dependent, and it’s very person specific.

I also wanted to bring up another point about the idea that people sometimes don’t obtain information because they think they can’t do anything about that specific piece of information. So a lot of people in our studies said, “Well, I don’t want to know if I have a certain disease or not, because I can’t do anything about this disease.” Or “I don’t want to know what my coworker down the hall is making in his portfolio, because it doesn’t help me make back that money.” But there is something you can do about that information. You can use that to update your belief. You can use that to change course, whether it’s changing your planned asset allocation or changing your lifestyle habits, with health. So you can react to that information, and I think a lot of people don’t think of it that way.

KATY MILKMAN: That’s interesting. So it could be related to a sense of low control. When we have a low sense of control, we would expect to see more information avoidance.

EMILY HO: Yeah. We do find some evidence that people who are slightly more self-efficacious or have a more sense of agency over their lives, they tend to want the information more. And we also find that people who discount the future less, meaning that they see the future as closer than others might, those people also tend to want information more.

KATY MILKMAN: That’s really, really helpful. And with the disease example, it’s not even just about making better decisions for yourself. You might be contagious, and it would be important to know that for public health. Right?

EMILY HO: Exactly.

KATY MILKMAN: So do you have any advice for people and how they can avoid the pitfalls of succumbing to biases like the ostrich effect and information avoidance and motivated forgetting?

EMILY HO: I think it’s really helpful to, if you’re in the right mindset for it, maybe not after you read in the news that the stock market has come down or whatever, to think about why exactly you’re avoiding the information. Is it really just you’re afraid of your own emotions? Is it because you don’t think you can do anything about it? There’s some interesting research in psychology about how just asking people to contemplate why they’re avoiding information helps people seek information out. I think it’s also really concrete to consider the counterfactual. So if, for example, you don’t want to know … let’s do salary comparisons. So let’s say you don’t want to know how much someone down the hall is making. You’re in the same position, the same kind of rank. Then you think to yourself, well, the counterfactual of not finding out is maybe they’re making more than me. Maybe it’s an extra $800 a month. I don’t know. And then if I don’t find out, I’m literally losing $800 a month.

And I think tying that piece of counterfactual in a very concrete way can help you override the initial impulse to just be like, “That would make me feel too bad. I’m just going to pretend that piece of information is not out there.” Especially in, I think, today’s day and age, where there’s so much information and so much of it is free or nearly free. And why shouldn’t you inform yourself if you can?

KATY MILKMAN: That’s really interesting. And the way you described a solution makes me think about research on what Danny Kahneman has made famous—and I guess others wrote about before—which is this idea that we have a System One that’s instinctive and reactive and emotional and hot and that leads us to make biased choices. And then we have a System Two that’s sort of more thoughtful and careful and does second higher-order reasoning a little slower. The way you described it, it sounds like what you’re saying is we need to bring System Two online to overcome these information-avoidance-type biases. And I think that’s really interesting because I would have actually thought maybe System Two is where the information avoidance is happening, but it sounds like you’re saying it’s a hot state, and if we can come out of that instinctual reaction to avoid and think more carefully, we can do better. Is that right?

EMILY HO: Yeah. I would definitely posit that it’s more of a hot state, more of a System One mentality where there’s a knee jerk reaction, like “I definitely don’t want X or Y.” And then when you revisit it a few moments later, you think, “Oh, but think of all the other implications this could bring up once I find out.” So in the case of Huntington’s Disease, so it’s a neurodegenerative disease with a pretty short life expectancy. And so initially System One would say, “If I find out, then I literally find out that I’m going to pass away a lot sooner than I think.” And that’s the initial sort of gut reaction, very unpleasant to contemplate. But then if you really sit down and think about it, you think, “Oh, well this clarifies a lot of things for me. I can retire early”—and they do find that people who are diagnosed retire early—or “I can make plans with so much greater certainty that can help, not just me, but people around me.” And so I think that’s maybe an example of System Two taking over and thinking of all the positive implications of information that may initially be perceived as really unpleasant.

KATY MILKMAN: That’s really interesting. The last thing I wanted to ask you is if there’s anything you do differently in your own life as a result of studying these topics.

EMILY HO: Yeah, so how this study came about is the other two co-authors, George Loewenstein and David Hagmann, we were just at a conference and asking each other what we thought we were, and we were on different ends of the spectrum. George says, “Oh, I’m total information avoider.” And David said, “Oh, I’m a total information seeker.” And I said I was somewhere in the middle. And I think that having contemplated the reasons for why I avoid information, I definitely have shifted over more into the information-seeking end of the scale.

And I guess one example is I never used to track the number of steps I took because I average a certain amount every day, but some days I’m very sedentary, and I realized that I didn’t want to face the days I was sedentary. And in so doing, I was foregoing or avoiding a lot of really useful information that I could use to lead a healthier lifestyle. And so once I realized that it was only two days that I was at my office all day, and that it gave me a lot more information about strategies I could use to be more active, I turned the tracker back on.

KATY MILKMAN: That’s really interesting that you talked about your information avoidance with step count. Because I’m also someone who’s fluctuated between wearing a step tracker and avoiding wearing it.

EMILY HO: Yes. Very psychologically very painful to see.

KATY MILKMAN: Yes.

EMILY HO: Even … it’s funny because—and this gets into loss aversion—where the good days don’t seem to make up for the bad, in my mind.

KATY MILKMAN: Absolutely. It definitely, definitely relates to loss aversion. That’s a great connection. Thank you, Emily, so much for taking the time to do this. I really appreciate it. It’s been great talking to you about your research in this topic more generally.

EMILY HO: Thank you, Katy, for having me.

KATY MILKMAN: Emily Ho is a research assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Department of Medical Social Sciences. I have a link to the paper she co-authored with George Loewenstein and David Hagmann in the show notes or at schwab.com/podcast.

Often the best thing to do with your portfolio when its suffered losses really is nothing at all, if it still aligns with your goals and risk tolerance. It’s not a matter of avoiding information—but of learning to look beyond the latest headlines and to evaluate financial decisions with all the relevant information, not just what’s most salient or attention grabbing. That’s a frequent topic on our sister podcast, Financial Decoder, where host Mark Riepe explores questions like “Should You Get Out of the Market Now and Get Back in Later?” and “Has the Pandemic Changed Your Financial Plan?” You can find it at schwab.com/financialdecoder or wherever you listen to podcasts.

It turns out that real ostriches don’t actually bury their heads in the sand. That’s a myth. But it is a useful analogy to describe the way some people tend to behave in the face of uncomfortable information, particularly when it comes to our finances and personal health. As Emily Ho mentioned, some people deliberately avoid information, even when that information could be useful. The implications on a personal level can be serious. If Amelia Boone had continued to ignore her health, she might’ve permanently lost her ability to race, or worse. Similarly, putting off a home inspection to avoid learning of problems can lead to more expensive repairs down the line. Information avoidance in organizations may result in leaders and managers failing to recognize poor performance or unethical behaviors from their employees. And the effects on society can be enormous. Ignoring news about extreme weather events or public health issues like COVID-19 can compromise entire communities.

As Emily pointed out, though, it seems the best defense in this case is a good offense. If we actually carefully consider just what we might gain from taking our head out of the sand, it may help us make cooler headed decisions instead of letting our bias and aversion to bad news lead us to make mistakes we might later regret.

You’ve been listening to Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. If you’ve enjoyed the show, we’d be really grateful if you’d leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. You can also subscribe for free in your favorite podcasting apps. And if you’d like to get my newsletter, which features even more content from the interviews I do on Choiceology with scientists, you can sign up at katymilkman.com/newsletter. In the next episode, we’ll dig into an emotion that lives in the past but can affect your future. I’m Dr. Katy Milkman. Talk to you soon.

SPEAKER 7: For important disclosures. See the show notes or visit schwab.com/podcast.

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